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PFAS Strategic Roadmap: Highlights and Expected Impacts

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In October 2021, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released their new strategy for regulating per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) in the United States. The PFAS Strategic Roadmap is a national blueprint setting out a range of actions and timelines to eliminate, monitor and remediate the compounds.


For over 20 years, the negative effects that PFAS can have on the environment and human health have been well documented. The Roadmap outlines the EPA’s commitment to addressing concerns for better safeguarding from the hazards PFAS present, by instating new policies and holding polluters accountable. 


In this interview, Dr. Craig Butt, senior global staff scientist, food/environmental at SCIEX, discusses some of the highlights from the Roadmap and its expected impacts. Throughout his career, much of Dr. Butt’s research has focused on investigating PFAS, including studying their fates in humans and wildlife, understanding how they are transported to remote regions of the globe and developing new analytical methods.


Anna MacDonald (AM): How big of a problem are PFAS? What is driving a need for such a comprehensive strategy?


Craig Butt (CB): PFAS have been detected in nearly every single human from around the globe as well as in wildlife, including those from far away regions such the Canadian arctic and remote Pacific islands. Furthermore, they are frequently detected in the air we breathe, the water we drink and the soils that grow our food. They have been called “forever chemicals” because some PFAS chemicals will never breakdown in the natural environment. Health effect studies suggest that PFAS can impact the immune system and potentially cause cancer. 


There are approximately 5000 different PFAS chemicals in commercial use, although the specific details are uncertain due to confidentially agreements. PFAS are a complex group of chemicals which comprise many different “classes”. For example, some PFAS breakdown relatively quickly in the environment but ultimately form PFAS chemicals which may stay in our bodies for three to five years and are extremely persistent in the environment.   


PFAS have been manufactured since the 1950s but there is still a lot that we don’t know about where they come from, how they get into our bodies and what harm that they may cause. To answer these questions, we need a comprehensive strategy which targets the entire PFAS lifecycle.   


AM: What are the key actions of this strategy? Can you provide us some high-level highlights?


CB: The new PFAS Strategic Roadmap is a bold, comprehensive, and ambitious plan and is framed around three main pillars: Research, Restrict and Remediate. It is unique from previous attempts by virtue of tackling the entire PFAS “lifecycle”, that is from PFAS production to commercial and industrial use to final disposal. There is also a strong scientifically based research aspect which will improve our understanding of key PFAS knowledge gaps. Finally, the Roadmap attempts to address so-called “environmental justice” social issues by prioritizing the protection of historically disadvantaged communities, which are those often most impacted by environmental contamination.


AM: How will this roadmap impact: a) food, b) environment and c) industry?


CB: The exact details are still uncertain, but the Strategic Roadmap does offer some insight. The commit to investigating the complete PFAS lifecycle includes elucidating the importance of various human exposure sources, including food and water consumption. Further, there is a significant focus on monitoring PFAS in fish tissues. While fish are directly consumed by many people, their PFAS levels can also serve as biomarkers for other wildlife as well as general environmental levels. It appears that water monitoring will continue to be a major testing focus. In addition, air monitoring will be strongly emphasized which is relevant for direct inhalation but also as potential sources to water, soils and crops. With respect to industrial impacts, the Roadmap focuses on controlling PFAS emissions from industrial discharges and holding polluters accountable for remediation.  


Dr. Craig Butt was speaking to Anna MacDonald, Science Writer for Technology Networks.